Red, White and Blue Jeans
At small factories across the country, a cottage industry is producing brilliant British denim
The Japanese concept of “wabi-sabi” refers to the notion of finding beauty in the imperfect and incomplete. The idea that items made by hand, things that are worn, rough-hewn, asymmetric, should be cherished, not discarded.
Scott Ogden refers to it when he talks about why the jeans he makes with partner Kelly Dawson under the banner Dawson Denim are so popular in Japan. “I think it’s the mystique of something English, denim out there is fairly common,” he says. “I think they buy it for the English name, writing and packaging, and they can always relate to the denim being sourced from mills that they would know. They also like the — and I hate to use the word — method of ‘artisan’ making.”
It’s no surprise Ogden shudders at the word “artisan”, the descriptor is now so overused it’s often as much an air-quote-assisted insult as an accolade. But Ogden and Dawson are artisans, even if they don’t want to say it. Founding their brand in 2012, they hand-make jeans from Japanese selvedge denim — the tougher version of the cotton fabric. It’s woven tighter on old-fashioned shuttle looms and the resulting cloth sheets are narrower, with a woven band along each edge which prevents it from fraying (the “self-edge”). Over the past century, Japan has adopted Western methods of selvedge production, fused them with age-old dyeing techniques and emerged as the pre-eminent producer of selvedge, eclipsing Italy and even America.
Ogden and Dawson, along with their single employee, hand-cut pieces from the denim and stitch them into trousers using tabletop Union Special sewing machines from the Fifties. “The chain-stitch machine for the hemming on the jeans gives a roping effect on the hem,” explains Ogden, “which is actually a fault. Union Special corrected it on their later machines, but jean aficionados like it. Once your jeans have been washed and start to fade, you get that kind of rippling effect on your hem.”
The trio turn out 25 pairs per week, each one stamped with a number and the name of its maker. Every pair is sold with a lifetime guarantee and costs around £250 (in six years, Dawson Denim has repaired just two pairs of its jeans). The business has doubled year-on-year and just opened its first store, a workshop/retail space in a Brighton mews, and though the majority of Dawson Denim’s wholesale accounts are in Japan, its UK customer base is wide.
“We thought we’d just be selling to heritage folk, rockabillies, people who are into a period scene,” says Ogden. “That wasn’t the case at all. Graphic designers seem to love our jeans. We worked out that sales are predominantly from men between 24 and 35, but it’s completely across the board.”
Dawson Denim is not alone; there is now a cottage industry of high-quality British jeansmakers. Two-hundred-and-eighty miles from Brighton, in Cardigan, West Wales, David and Clare Hieatt have breathed life back into a moribund local industry. For decades, the Dewhirst denim jean factory in the town employed 400 people — 10 per cent of the local population — but when it closed in 2002 they were forced to either move with the company to Morocco or find alternative work. After founding and eventually selling their adventure-wear company Howies, the Hieatts set about reestablishing denim production in the old factory and in 2012 Hiut Denim Co began trading.
“We started with five people,” says David, “and that went pretty well. We got six months of orders in the first month and had to close the website, which is not a sensible decision. There’s about 25 of us now, and we’re looking to hire.” The makers at Hiut are referred to as “grand masters”, after writer Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at any skill. From making jeans in the factory for years before it closed, the sewing team at Hiut all have far more than 10,000 hours under their belts.
Hiut sells direct to consumers (online only with no retailers), which is why, says Hieatt, the company can afford the best denims. It buys from Japanese mills including Nihon Menpu and Kuroki (as does Dawson Denim), but it also buys organic non-selvedge from Turkey and Italy. It’s a bigger operation than Dawson Denim, thanks in no small part to Meghan Markle who was snapped in a pair of Hiut jeans last year, causing a surge of orders and a subsequent three-month backlog. But the ethos is similar: it makes the best products it can with the aim of serving the customer for as long as possible. It’s the antithesis of fast fashion.
“Some people deride the hipster movement but that’s really a movement about craft and skill,” says Hieatt. “So, we went away from a throwaway culture where you buy cheap, and now there’s more of a zeitgeist for quality; you buy less but you buy better. Maybe that throwaway culture made us feel a bit sad inside, and we are living on this planet, right? It hasn’t got resources that go on forever.”
That consideration for materials is also felt in the capital. In Walthamstow, a once forgotten, formerly industrial, now semi-gentrified patch of north-east London, is another factory producing denim jeans. It is run by Bilgehan Ates, who worked in the textile business for 25 years before growing disillusioned with the lack of consideration for the environment and the welfare of staff.
Describing how he makes jeans, Ates cites the writing of The Guardian columnist and environmentalist George Monbiot, the amount of water we use every day (150 litres per person in the UK, apparently), the imbalance between current consumption and a sustainable future, and how craft beer and gourmet burgers changed how we look at quality. He also asks why we can’t apply the same scrutiny to fashion.
Previously, his factory had produced 28,000 garments per week before Ates moved production to Turkey, then China, prior to his epiphany. Now, reopened and renamed Blackhorse Lane Atelier, the company employs and trains people to make jeans from the best denims. There are rentable studio spaces for local creatives and even a restaurant — the showroom doubles as a dining room every Friday — and there is fresh bread for sale three days a week. It’s very East London, but it’s a real success: the business is growing and the company is looking to hire more makers. Blackhorse Lane Atelier — which styles itself as “London’s only craft jean-maker” — currently averages weekly sales of 350 pairs.
The value of the global denim industry is predicted to hit £12.7bn by 2025 and Britain’s new denim brands naturally want a slice of the ever-expanding pie, but on their own terms. Hiut’s David Hieatt says his only goal is to improve by one per cent each day, while Scott Ogden of Dawson Denim wants to teach the skills to new makers, and ideally, earn enough “to keep the lights on”.
Bilgehan Ates would like to see his Blackhorse Lane Atelier concept rolled out to New York, so someone there can do something similar “in their own handwriting”. Here’s hoping they can all achieve their aims — without losing sight of the wabi-sabi.
‘Consumers have left a throwaway culture where you buy cheap,’ says David Hieatt of Hiut Denim Co. ‘Now there’s more of a zeitgeist for quality; you buy less but you buy better’